Women Without a Clue

Maureen Dowd recently made the startling discovery that she is indeed the only woman in The New York Times' roster of nine columnists. This sad state of affairs naturally inspired Dowd to dwell at length in a recent column on her own courage to be "mean."

"If a man writes a scathing piece about men in power, it's seen as his job; a woman can be cast as an emasculating man-hater," she writes, describing the many travails that can befall the rare woman who finds the gumption to be, well, exactly like her. The self-congratulatory reverie concludes with a patronizing call to "find and nurture" the many "brilliant women" still toiling in obscurity.

Dowd's sudden interest in gender parity in the nation's op-ed pages was inspired by the ongoing feud between Susan Estrich and the Los Angeles Times. Furious at its refusal to run her syndicated column, the "liberal" commentator retaliated by declaring an all-out war against its editorial page editor, Michael Kinsley, accusing him of "blatant sex discrimination."

The paucity of female writers is not exactly news. Caryl Rivers and Alicia Mundy have long noted the preponderance of testosterone in leading newspapers, especially in the post-9/11 era, when women's voices have become scarcer still with the increased focus on the so-called "Big Issues" like war and terrorism. During November, 2002, only 14 of 92 bylines in the opinion pages of the Times were women. In that same year, Dennis Loy Johnson found that 80 percent of all New Yorker articles are written by men, while women are pushed mainly to the back pages. And this in a magazine with a majority of female subscribers. That editor David Remnick has since hired Caitlin Flanagan as a staff writer to rail at length against feminists – even as she espouses the benefits of domestic virtue – can hardly be described as an improvement.

There's much to bewail about the lack of diversity in journalism. The classrooms in journalism schools may be filled with women, but most will be pushed into soft news beats such as lifestyle or culture. And few of them will ever make their way to the top of the masthead in a national newspaper or magazine. Yet the successes of women who have defeated the odds as writers – be it Estrich, Flanagan, or, to a lesser extent, Dowd – should give the advocates of diversity pause. Their examples suggest that the traditional practice of measuring diversity by numbers is at best inadequate, if not entirely flawed.

Would, for example, the inclusion of Estrich on the pages of the L.A. Times really promote the cause of diversity, or, for that matter, women? This is someone who previously attacked the same newspaper for publishing an expose of Arnold Schwarzenegger's sordid sexual history five days before the gubernatorial election. In her column, Estrich dismissed reports of "touching a woman's breast in the elevator, whispering vulgarities and pulling a woman onto his lap" as not meeting the legal definition of harassment. Her current gig on Fox News, moreover, seems to consist entirely of fawning over the likes of Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich. Estrich's self-description as a liberal feminist – a label eagerly embraced by her right-wing buddies – just adds grievous insult to injury.

This isn't to say that female columnists must be feminist or even progressive, but in the absence of a truly diverse newsroom, writers like Estrich and Flanagan allow a publication or news channel to fulfill its "quota" at the expense of all women. Pick an Asian American like Michelle Malkin – Ann Coulter's heir-in-the-making best known for defending the internment of Japanese Americans – and you've got yourself a great two-for-one deal.

These women are just the most flagrant examples, but there is plenty of evidence that the profession rewards women who confirm conventional wisdom rather than challenge it, especially when it comes to issues of gender. Here is Katha Pollitt running down the list of journalists who led the lynch mob against Judy Dean during the Democratic primaries – they are all women:

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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